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Governing energy in Nicaragua: the practices and experiences of off-grid solar energy technologies

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posted on 19.11.2014, 16:37 by Danielle K. Gent
The global energy trilemma has brought attention to the importance of energy access, in particular to the 1.3 billion people worldwide without access to electricity. Vital for addressing poverty, improving people s quality of lives and meeting the Millennium Development Goals, small scale solar energy technologies are espoused as a solution to household energy needs in off-grid areas of the developing world. This thesis contributes to this critical research area through an investigation of energy governance issues in Nicaragua; specifically it focuses on the practices and experiences of off-grid solar energy technologies. The lived realities, voices and aspirations of energy users are largely absent in scholarly accounts of energy poverty, as such this thesis considers the implications of solar energy technologies from the perspective of those ultimately adopting, using, maintaining (and abandoning) them. Contributing to the burgeoning field of geographical and social science studies of energy, this thesis draws on ten months of field research in Nicaragua, which encompassed more than seventy qualitative interviews with stakeholders at multiple spatial scales. This included actors from international development agencies, national government, non-governmental organisations, the private sector, civil society, as well as households participating in three solar energy programmes. This was complemented by a large household survey of participants from one solar energy programme. Incorporating perspectives from the micro, meso and macro scales, this study presents a highly nuanced picture of the Nicaraguan energy landscape. The study concludes that interaction between global energy paradigm shifts and the domestic political economic context produced an electricity sector that was until recently - characterised by low distributional equity, deep consumer mistrust and dominated by fossil fuel-based electricity generation. The recent prioritisation of energy as a key developmental concern is demonstrated not only in strong government intervention, but also through growing international interest in solving Nicaragua s energy problem . A raft of programmes to green the electricity generating matrix, strengthen distribution activities and expand electricity access have emerged. Despite these encouraging developments, this research concludes that issues related to transparency, vested interests and the politicisation of electricity access appear to remain unresolved. The study traces the development of the off-grid solar energy market segment, revealing a complex architecture of institutions and actors working to promote and deploy solar energy technologies at scale. While this market initially developed in response to gaps in remote electrification plans, the research finds that recent grid expansion activities mean that the longer-term scope for small scale solar energy technologies is limited. However, solar energy remains an important feature of energy development assistance in Nicaragua, with further evidence in this study highlighting the amenability of solar energy to multiple institutional objectives and mandates whether climate change-related or poverty focused. The thesis concludes that the positions and expectations of key solar actors are often misaligned with the needs, wants and aspirations of off-grid energy users. Engagement with the narratives of people living in remote, off-grid areas reveals that the implications of solar energy programmes are not guaranteed, static, or necessarily captured by all households or indeed, all members of households. Users perceive that small scale solar energy technologies provide important soft benefits including increased levels of comfort, security, wellbeing and connectivity. However, the benefits are only captured for as long as the technology continues to work whether in organisational, financial, technical or social terms. The research concludes that there are numerous challenges facing solar energy interventions in Nicaragua, with some barriers connected to the situation of the user household, for instance, their continued ability to absorb the financial commitments associated with technology use. Other challenges link to the broader political economic context, where the highly complex, fragmented and politicised nature of (solar) electricity access has the potential to undermine interventions. This thesis argues that it is vital to examine solar energy interventions as embedded within broader political economic frameworks, but also to account for the intricacies of inter and intra-household dynamics. The study contributes new insights and empirical findings to debates on global energy governance, energy poverty, and the practices, politics and experiences of off-grid solar energy technologies in the Global South.


Loughborough University Sustainability Research School



  • Social Sciences


  • Geography and Environment


© Danielle Gent

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This work is made available according to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence. Full details of this licence are available at:

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

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